The Winter Squash Saga, Part II: Dessert

28 10 2008

As I promised yesterday, I’m back today with the winter squash, orange, and sage dessert.  I initially liked the idea of using these ingredients in a dessert because it seemed like more of a challenge.  Sage, in particular, is not usually used in sweets and I thought I could do something interesting with it.

Warm, fragrant, and fuzzy, sage is the freshly laundered blanket of the herb family.

The squash part was easy.  Winter squash-based sweets abound: pumpkin pies, cheesecakes, muffins, and even pancakes feature on menus everywhere this time of year (well, not in the southern Hemisphere, I guess).  In my first restaurant job I was given a recipe for butternut squash flan.  I thought it was a great idea, but the stupid thing never worked right.  My theory was that if we had just put a thin layer of caramel in the bottom of the molds, like you’re suppposed to when you’re making flan aka crème caramel, they would have come out beautifully every time.

The correct way to make crème caramel

So I did just that.  I also reduced the amount of cream in favor of milk (not something you’ll hear me say very often), because traditionally, crème caramel is the lightest of the baked custards and made using only milk and whole eggs.  Plus, I wanted that lighter texture.  I think it balances the richness of the caramel and helps to make more of that delicious sauce you get when you finally unmold the dessert.  I snuck some of the orange butter into the caramel to play up the orange flavor in the squash (I reserved some from the lasagna and puréed it using my beloved immersion blender).

Water baths are not a big deal.

After a short spell in the oven, their custards were ready.  I prefer mine just-set, by which I mean barely holding together.  Feeling pleased with my success so far, I left the custards in the fridge to chill overnight.

“But what about the sage?”  You must be wondering.  In one of those flashes of inspiration, it came to me.

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The Winter Squash Saga, Part I: Lasagna

27 10 2008

Acorn squash, orange, and sage.  These are the ingredients for the November Royal Foodie Joust chez The Leftover Queen.  Luckily for all of us residing outside the United States, it was deemed appropriate to substitute any orange-fleshed winter squash.  I thought I’d use a patidou, but they seem to have disappeared from the markets.  Ah, well.  Potiron is plentiful and cheap, not to mention tasty.

A hunk of potiron

But what to do with it?  The combination of winter squash with orange sounds good, ditto with sage.  All three together, however, pose a bit more of a challenge.  It’s not exactly an intuitive pairing.  After a good amount of brainstorming, I had come up with two good ideas, or so I thought.  I ultimately rejected the homemade pork-sausage-stuffed acorn squash, not only because of my change in squash, but because it seemed a little too obvious.  Sure, it would be delicious, but I wanted something unique.  The other idea, for a dessert, did come to fruition, but that’s tomorrow’s post.

Somehow, while wandering through the market, basking in the glory of the new fall produce, a new dish began to take shape in my head.  We had picked up some Swiss chard, and after getting some preparation tips from Chez Loulou, I was excited to try my hand at some fresh chestnuts.  (A brief aside: I learned this weekend that while chestnuts are most commonly referred to here as “marrons,” the correct word for edible chestnuts is “châtaignes.”) 

Fresh chestnuts, pre-roasting

Nick mentioned lasagna somewhere along the way, in reference to something else entirely, and all of a sudden it fell into place: Orange-roasted squash lasagna with chestnuts and Swiss chard!  A little Béchamel sauce and Gruyère to pull it all together… this is going to be fantastic!

Lasagna is hardly a quick-and-easy dish, and this was a project, for sure.  Roasting and peeling the chestnuts, trying to find the right balance between orange and squash flavor, making the sauce, grating the cheese… you get the idea.  The approach I took was a relaxed one, doing one component at a time, stretching the prep out over the course of the day.  You could go the other way, roasting the squash and chestnuts simultaneously while cooking the chard and Béchamel, but since I cook on schedule all week at work, I prefer a leisurely pace when I’m cooking at home.

the Microplane.

Besides, cooking the slow way leaves plenty of time to take copious notes, not to mention innovate along the way.  While the pumpkin was in the oven, I decided to use the orange zest to make an orange butter with which to baste the squash.  I liked it so much that I ended up using it in the dessert, too.

Mini onion piqué

Béchamel sauce makes not-uncommon appearances in my kitchen, so that was no problem.  Combined with sautéed Swiss chard, fresh sage, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, it made a scrumptious, creamy dish that could easily stand alone.

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Fennel Focaccia

29 09 2008

It kind of looks like an onion, with celery growing out the top, and dill instead of leaves.

I must admit, I was pretty excited when I saw the ingredients for this month’s Foodie Joust: Fennel, Dairy, and Parsley.  I’ve never been a fan of licorice or anise-flavored anything, but sometime over the last couple of years I fell in love with fresh fennel.  The anise-y-ness is mild enough to be tolerable, and it evolves into a subtle sweetness when the fennel is cooked.  So I immediately jotted down four or five recipe ideas – some old favorites, some new inventions – and ran them by Nick.  He wanted to try the focaccia with caramelized fennel, parsley, and goat cheese, so I started working on a focaccia recipe.

Dimpled focaccia dough

I have a little bit of starter going in my fridge for bread-baking purposes, and I thought it would give my focaccia the character that so many recipes seem to lack.  I have also determined that the potato in focaccia dough is by no means optional.  It gives the finished bread an unmistakable texture and helps to keep it moist, too.  And it turns out that focaccia is pretty fun to make.  Sure, it takes a while, but you can use all that rising time to prep your toppings, cook dinner, answer emails, do a little online shopping… or whatever it is you like to do in idle moments at home.

Before...

For this recipe, I essentially braised the fennel:  I sliced it thin, browned it in olive oil, then threw in some white wine and tarragon vinegar and let it cook down until the liquid was gone and the fennel was tender.  I figured the caramelization process could finish in the oven.  As for the parsley, I chopped it up with the fronds from the fennel andmade a sort of paste with a little olive oil.  And the cheese?  Well, I picked up an awesome little fresh raw-milk chèvre at the market.  It had a much fuller and more distinctly goat-y flavor than your average fresh goat cheese, and it stood up well to the bold flavors imparted by the fennel and the parsley.

So head on over to the Leftover Queen’s forum and vote for me!  (The voting should start on Thursday, October 2nd, and ends on the 5th.)  Keep reading for the recipe…

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Coulibiac/Kulebiaka

26 08 2008

So here is my other contender for entry into the Royal Foodie Joust at The Leftover Queen.

Coulebiac with Quinoa and Ginger

Coulibiac is the French name for the Russian dish Kulebiaka.  Traditionally, it consists of fish (usually salmon), baked in a brioche crust with rice, egg, and mushrooms, seasoned with lemon and dill.  It’s one of those seriously old-school recipes that would be right at home on a table laid by Carême.  Or it would be if you made it with an entire fish, and then shaped the brioche crust to look like a fish complete with glistening egg-washed scales and maybe an olive for the eye.

By comparison, my recipe is simple, though it looks like a monster undertaking.  (Writing it all down was no walk in the park, I’ll tell you that.)  But if you’re organized, you really can do all the prep while you’re waiting for the brioche to rise.  I made a few changes to the traditional dish, swapping out the rice in favor of quinoa and adding a hint of ginger.  I replaced the dill with fresh chives, because I thought they would be a better complement to the ginger.  I also omitted the egg, as it seemed extraneous.  And I threw some whole wheat flour into the brioche dough to increase the whole-grain factor.

Mushrooms sautéed with ginger and chives

After setting the brioche dough aside to rest, I started with the mushrooms.  Sautéed in butter and seasoned with salt, pepper, and fresh ginger, then finished with white wine and fresh chives, I could have eaten these on their own.  But they were destined for bigger things, so I set them aside to keep the brioche company.  While they were cooking, I simmered the quinoa in water seasoned with salt and ginger.  I undercooked it slightly in hopes that it would come out of the final dish perfectly cooked.  Lemon zest and more chives brightened up the flavor and then that, too, had to wait.

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The Great Duo of Avocado and Shrimp

23 07 2008

It’s time again for the Leftover Queen’s Royal Foodie Joust!  This month the ingredients are Cilantro, Sesame, and Seafood.  For some reason I thought immediately of tahini, the delicious Middle Eastern/Mediterranean sesame paste.  Then I was stumped for a while, because I wasn’t quite sure how to work the cilantro in, or which seafood to choose (it’s a pretty broad category).  But one afternoon, over lunch with Hope, she mentioned that she had been playing around with gazpacho lately, and it struck me as the perfect vehicle.  Somehow avocados came up, and by the time lunch was over I had a recipe jumping around in my brain, just waiting to be made a reality.

We picked up some avocados and cilantro at the market the next day.  I had decided on seared scallops for the seafood quotient, but was unable to find any at the market.  I briefly considered going the crispy-skin seabass route, but an overly long line at the fishmonger on my lunch hour made that decision for me.  Ultimately, I settled on shrimp for their ability to pair awesomely with avocado.

When I finally cut into the avocados, I was pleased to find some of the most gorgeous, buttery-green specimens I’ve seen in France.

I have a painting very similar to this at home, painted by a friend of mine.

The gazpacho was really easy to put together:  I just threw all the ingredients (avocados, cilantro, lime juice, tahini, garlic, fish stock, salt, cayenne) in a bowl, like so:

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A Reminder…

2 07 2008

…to vote for me in the Royal Foodie Joust!  If your memory needs refreshing, my entry is here.  To vote for my recipe, go here.

I promise I’ve got some actual food posts in the works.  Stay tuned for a delicious quiche and my recipe for pizza/calzone dough for tiny, ill-equipped kitchens.





Apricots and Ginger and Butter, Oh My!

20 06 2008

I know I just posted about clafoutis on Monday, but, as Loulou recently pointed out, it’s clafoutis season!  So maybe I’ve got clafoutis on the brain, but when I saw this month’s Royal Foodie Joust ingredients – apricots, ginger, butter – I knew that this would be the perfect vehicle to showcase them!  (This is a monthly contest hosted by Jen (aka The Leftover Queen), and it’s my first time entering, so if you are a food blogger and want to vote for me, head over to the forum and sign up.

That’s a lot of links for one paragraph!  Still here?  So apricots in clafoutis are almost a given, but what is the best way to incorporate the ginger?  I decided that adding fresh grated ginger to the batter would give the most vibrant ginger flavor. 

Grating fresh ginger

In order to enhance the flavor of the butter I went ahead and browned it.  Because who doesn’t love the nutty richness of brown butter?

Mmmm... brown butter

I also roasted the flour before incorporating it into the batter, adding to the fullness of flavor imparted by the brown butter.  I first read about this technique on Chocolate and Zucchini a couple of months ago, and have been intrigued ever since.  (Note: I did attempt the Squeeze Cookies, and they were tasty but ugly, which is why you never saw them here.)  The batter made, I set about arranging the apricots in an attractive manner in the baking dish.  They were not exactly ideal specimens, a little worse for wear after the manhandling they received at the hands of the guy selling them.  But I did my best to make them look cute for the camera.

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